Lawrence Scanlan is the author of A Year of Living Generously: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Philanthropy. He’s currently writing a play on the rich/poor divide.
In the small hours of Jan. 10, when most people in my lakeside community were tucked in their warm beds and outside temperatures reached -19, two men became embroiled in a dispute outside a homeless shelter. Both wanted in from the cold. Owing to COVID-19 protocols, only one person at a time is allowed inside the shelter’s screening room, which meant that one of the men had to wait outside. Perhaps he thought the other was taking too long; the chain of events has yet to be determined. What is known is that one man died of stab wounds, and another has been charged with first-degree murder.
It’s unclear what role the winter cold – or COVID-19 or the dearth of housing and mental health/addiction programs, or any of the circumstances that put these two men on the street – played in this particular tragedy. But we do know that, every year, Canadians “sleeping rough,” as it’s called, die from exposure. And as I look at the long-range forecast, I worry those numbers will soar. There may be no easy or quick solution here, but surely we can accomplish something as basic as universal relief from the cold?
My city is Kingston, where tents – big, small, some covered in tarps and layers of plastic – have cropped up everywhere. They are in the swampland adjacent to Belle Park and, increasingly, in the woods behind the shelter itself. As I wrote this, four were in front of the Memorial Centre, an old arena. Orange extension cords snaking from some of the tents were plugged into public electrical outlets used in the warmer months by vendors at the farmers’ market. The owners of these tents are the “lucky” ones, for they can power heaters to stave off the killing cold.
Over in Barrie, a bigger city roughly 350 kilometres to the northwest, a similar drama was playing out. Around the same time that clients and staff at the homeless shelter in Kingston were reeling from the tragic death, the only warming centre in Barrie was closing down. It had been up all of 10 days. There had been a complaint, police told “Pastor” Andy Stokes, the architect of the makeshift centre.
There are overnight shelters in Barrie, just as there are in Kingston. So how come people in need don’t always use them? The simple answer (to a complex issue) is apparently the same in both cities.
Mr. Stokes, who used to live outside himself, told CBC Radio’s Carol Off, host of As It Happens, that about 95 per cent of the people sleeping rough in his city have both substance abuse issues and mental health issues. These people may not feel safe in some shelters, may have had their belongings stolen in those shelters, or may have been banned from certain shelters for past behaviour. Or, there is simply no room at the inn. This is a perennial problem, and COVID-19 has made it much worse.
Mr. Stokes constructed the warming centre at a downtown gazebo, deploying tarps and bungee cords, blankets, chairs and propane tanks. The idea was to give people without a roof over their heads brief respite from daytime cold. “The wind is the worst enemy of our homeless,” he told Ms. Off. He meant to offer them a little warmth, along with hot coffee and food. He calls these individuals his “family,” and he knows them by name. They are “all ages,” he says: teenagers, adults, seniors and even children (a father brought in his preschool-aged daughter). One man named Gordo is 75 years old, walks with a cane, and has endured many beatings, Mr. Stokes says.
The unhoused often have one experience in common: trauma to the head. Kingston’s Integrated Care Hub, as the aforementioned Montreal St. shelter is formally known, recently commissioned a report that profiled those who avail themselves of the service. The results were striking and echo what Mr. Stokes was saying. Ninety-three per cent of those who completed the survey had received multiple mental health diagnoses. Ninety per cent of men and 91 per cent of women reported a history of head trauma. A similar number had been incarcerated, most of the charges drug-related, and many of them stemming from petty theft to support a drug habit. Typically, their individual use of substances had started at 13 or 14 years of age.
Writing in The Kingston Whig-Standard on Jan. 13, Dr. Jane Philpott – the former federal minister of health and now the dean of Queen’s University’s faculty of health sciences – praised the work of the Hub and talked about what she called “problematic drug use.” She observed that such behaviour is “almost always driven by hurt or trauma. Physical or psychological pain then perpetuates addiction, as does isolation and abandonment.”
Mr. Stokes told CBC Radio that donations from the community (sleeping bags, tuques, boots) and the affection and gratitude of those helped are the fuel that keep him going. Gilles Charette, executive director at the Hub, says the same: “Kind community members and the appreciation of those we serve help a great deal.”
In my experience, there are three things individuals can do to help these vulnerable people in their communities.
1. Donate items that are desperately needed. This wish list is from the Hub: gloves, socks, underwear, toothbrushes and toothpaste, hair brushes, blankets, coats and bottled water. Work with the shelter, get their blessing and approach local merchants for discounts on bulk purchases. Tap into the kindness of strangers.
2. Pressure politicians at every level to make systemic changes, so that no one is left out in the cold. Make that a starting point.
3. Think twice before complaining about a tent in a park or a warming centre in a gazebo. Winter is far from over.
David Hodgson, the victim in the Kingston attack, was 51 years old. He was a roofer who fell and broke both legs more than a decade ago before becoming addicted to the opioids he was prescribed. A quiet, funny man with a passion for art and auto mechanics, he was a father – “a great father,” his daughter says – and a grandfather. He was also a nighthawk, and in the middle of that particularly frigid night he simply wanted what should have been his civic right: warmth.
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